sunnudagur, nóvember 28, 2004


Approaching Market Street, chatting about the gathering we'd just departed, my companion fussed about his bearings, unfamiliar with the lay of the streets and unable to make out their names on the poorly-lit signs. I made light of his disorientation and joked that he was getting older and blinder. "Do you think so?" he said. The tone of his voice made me look, and I saw him take his glasses from his nose, swivel his feathered head toward me, and stare a moment with great blank owl eyes before shooting up into the darkness above San Francisco.

laugardagur, nóvember 27, 2004

gallopavian ruminations

At a bilingual feed of appropriately festive proportions I am reminded that one of the Spanish words for turkey is el pavo, and that this is the Latin word for peacock: pavo (gen. pavonis).

Apparently, early European settlers in the Americas took the turkey to be a species of peacock. This is not as crazy as it might seem. After all, turkeys do have an impressive fan of tail feathers, and that is what peacocks are known for. If you knew the one by reputation only and encountered the other, it would be easy to make a misidentification.

The North American Meleagris gallopavo (note the descriptive species name gallopavo: lit. "chicken-peacock") seems to have been tagged with the name turkey as the result of other confusions. Apparently, in the sixteenth century the guinea fowl was already being imported into Europe from Madagascar via Turkey, and hence it was known as a turkey. When the North American bird was traded up into Europe along the same route, it was confused with the guinea hen and called by the same name.

At least, this it what I am given to understand here.

Conspiracy theorists take note: the role of Madagascar here as the origin of guinea fowl provides a potential Lemurian connection for these tangled etymologies.

fimmtudagur, nóvember 25, 2004


Here are some thylacine links, simply because I like the thylacine, both word and beast, and as the latter is extinct, there is little call to use the former, and I think it all a great shame.

Probably I am thinking about the thylacine because I just recently wrote about the polar bear, whose other name is thalarctos, an impressive princely word. It sounds like a title, rank. Thylacine is not so regal-sounding.

But what a pleasant slippery word it is, lithe and foxy.

What an engaging stripey fellow the thylacine would seem to have been in person:

This site is a fine museum. There are films. Watch them and see how springy and elastic these animals were, with their long hind feet, heels on the ground. See their great dark eyes and alarmingly wide gapes.

This site dreams of cloning thylacines. Think of that.

This movie keeps catching up with me on late-night TV, when I'm actually in a place with a TV, and really it has a great deal more charm than IMDB would have you believe, at least, it does if you enjoy rolling the idea of the thylacine over and over in your mind in the hours after 2 am.

The Icelandic word for thylacine is pokaúlfur, "pocket-wolf," a good example of a coinage that makes sense, even if one has little use for it. Pokadýr are marsupials, "pocket-animals;" pokarottur are possums, "pocket-rats." It is a logical word, pokaúlfur, but not, to my ear, an evocative one. I do not know when it was coined, but I would like to, because suddenly I am curious whether it came into being before or after the last thylacine in captivity died, in 1936.

miðvikudagur, nóvember 24, 2004

ørn i bur

Henrik Ibsen's Hærmændene på Helgeland ("The Vikings at Helgeland") premiered in Kristiania, now Oslo, on this day in 1858.
This play has not aged well. It is a Viking drama, after all, full of insupportably weighty dialogue. Parts of it, however, are brilliant fun, and the scene excerpted below must have been wonderfully shocking. It contains a really rather frank description of the female orgasm - in the first person, no less. I cannot imagine what it must have been like to hear it in person, in 1858, among the fashionable classes of Kristiania.

HJØRDIS. . . . men sig mig, når Sigurd for i viking og du var med, - når du hørte sværdene suse i den hvasse leg, når blodet damped rødt på skibsdækket, - kom der så ikke over dig en utæmmelig lyst efter at strides blandt mændene; klædte du dig så ikke i hærklæder og tog våben i hånd?

DAGNY. Aldrig! Hvad tænker du på? Jeg, en kvinde?

HJØRDIS. Hm, en kvinde, en kvinde, - hm, der er ingen, som ved hvad en kvinde er istand til! - Nu, en ting kan du dog sige mig, Dagny; thi det må du sikkert vide: Når en mand favner den kvinde, han har kær, - er det sandt, at da brænder hendes blod,
hendes bryst banker, - svimler hun i sælsom fryd derved?

DAGNY (rødmende). Hjørdis, hvor kan du -!

HJØRDIS. Nu da, sig mig -!

DAGNY. Det tænker jeg forvist du har fornummet.

HJØRDIS. Ja, en gang, kun en eneste; det var hin nat, da Gunnar sad hos mig i buret; han krysted mig i favn så brynjen brast, og da, da -!

DAGNY (udbrydende). Hvad! Sigurd -!

HJØRDIS. Sigurd? Hvo taler om Sigurd? Jeg nævnte Gunnar, - hin nat, da kvinderanet -

DAGNY (fatter sig). Ja ja, jeg mindes, - jeg ved vel -

HJØRDIS. Det var den eneste gang; aldrig, aldrig siden! Jeg tænkte, at jeg var slagen med trolddom; thi at Gunnar så kunde favne en kvinde, det - (standser og ser på Dagny.) Er du syg? Mig tykkes, du blir bleg og rød!

Visst ikke, visst ikke!

I wrestled with myself, posting this bit of Act II, on the question of whether to render it into English, but I concluded that I had neither the time nor the appropriate English. It should be a 1850's idea of what people in 900 sounded like, based on sources written around 1300. It should come out perfectly dreadful, or like Longfellow, or like dreadful Longfellow, and I'm just not up to it at the moment.

þriðjudagur, nóvember 23, 2004

thin ice

This news of global warming's effects on the linguistic landscape of the High North is disturbing, not because it is desirable to defend Saami, Finnish, Inuit, or Icelandic from invading terms for southern birds, but because the great shifts in the environment that are causing the animals' migrations that then pose difficulties for speakers of languages not previously used to discuss elk, robins, hornets, &c. are distressing of themselves.

Mind you, change of itself is not bad.

I can get enthusiastic about language on both sides of whatever phoneme shift you like. Watch me.

I mourn, in a recreational kind of way, the exinction of delightful grammatical fauna like the Old English dual pronoun wit, the disappearance of engaging orthographic flora like the eðel of Old Norse. All the while I know that I can invoke these odd creatures in prose and verse, summon them from beyond the grave exactly by bemoaning their vanishment, and it is just possible that I enjoy my revenant menagerie the more in its afterlife than I would have otherwise.

But when Ursus maritimus disappears from the North, when he succumbs (and I mean the great white bear himself and not his signifier in any particular tongue), on that day and ever after no amount of clever verbiage, no ex post facto ekphrasis from stock footage will begin to make up for it.

(Update: see also Ray Girvan at Apothecary's Drawer for a considered reaction to the same Reuter's piece, full of excellent links. Learn, for example, how to identify a snowclone.)

mánudagur, nóvember 22, 2004


Rasmus Kristian Rask was born on this day in 1787 in Brændekilde, Denmark. His gravestone stands in Assistenskirkegården in Copenhagen.

It is, as you see, wonderfully inscribed, as befits this brilliant linguist. The bottommost line of writing is nagari - Sanskrit - apparently one of two such inscriptions in Denmark. Stefan Baums has a lovely page here with a bigger picture, discussion of the Sanskrit (in Danish), and some bibliography.

The runes spell out this piece of wisdom:

Ef þú villt fullkominn vera í fróðleik, þá nem þú öllum tungum, en týn þó ekki at heldr þinni tungu.

If you will be perfect in knowledge, then learn all languages, but do not lose your own language either.

ketchup advisory board

Drifting by Language Log I find a note on the Ketchup Song and a link back to the Apothecary's Drawer, where a nice squib with links demystifies the genealogy of the Ketchup Song chorus lyrics, if one can rightly call "aserejè ja de jè de jebe tu de jebere seibiunouva, majavi an de bugui an de buididipi" lyrics in the traditional sense.

Having shouted myself hoarse over just this string of pseudo-Spanish during many a late night at Kaffi List, I am pleased to learn that these nonsense syllables derive phonetically from the chorus of the Sugar Hill Gang's 1979 Rapper's Delight: "I said a hip hop the hippie the hippie to the hip hip hop ... " Granted, the original text is a scant step up in terms of sense, but the phonotactic reanalysis is still amusing.

Mark Liberman at Language Log is also amused (though, yes, insufficiently European to be familiar with the Ketchup Song -- I assure him that he is not missing out on much). He compares this example of language contact to folk etymology formation like that which gives us eggcorn for acorn, but seems slightly disappointed that the semantics of both versions of the chorus are not more robust.

But note this brave attempt (duly noted at Apothecary's Drawer) to unpack the difficult line piecemeal into a Satanic message. The urge to reanalyze syllables, any syllables, into meaningful words, is a strong one.

My longtime favorite weird example of this phenomenon is the flash video "Hatten är din" (The hat is yours) with its helpful subtitles in Swedish. (For the Scandinavian-impaired, English glosses are here.) The same Eurocentrism that enables me to say "Oh yes, the Ketchup Song" of course prevents me from recognizing the original language of "Hatten." In any case the point is that the singer is not, in fact, singing Swedish words, but a Swedish speaker faced with the phonotactic subtitles cannot help but hear them as Swedish. And they are hilarious.

Reparsing language one cannot understand into language one can understand, particularly funny language, can be a powerful coping mechanism. During the war in Afghanistan, the airwaves were flooded with worrisome news full of unfamiliar placenames. Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion responded with humor, featuring on the 20.x.01 show a news report live "from the mountain province of Donundestan, from the provincial capital of Rillirillibad." The famous New Yorkistan cover of The New Yorker is another example, in which the local names are "Afghanicized." Typical, perhaps, for New Yorkers, the humor is at once literally self-effacing and yet obnoxious.

Apropos of which, I fear that I am coming to the conclusion that "Hatten er din" is a hair too far to the obnoxious side for me to enjoy as wholly innocent entertainment. I find now on the web a cottage industry in the image of "Hatten." An entire site devoted to reparsing Turkish songs into arguably sensible Swedish resides at Türkhits: Alla talar svenska! ("Everybody speaks Swedish!"). Beyond the dubious little animation on the front page, the entire phonotactic exercise is one that disarms potentially threatening Turkish (what are they singing about? are they talking about us?) by making it both comprehensible and ridiculous. The glosses erase Turkish and replace it, tellingly, with badly-accented Swedish so absurd that we can only conclude that the speakers are fools or lunatics. After all, as the title reminds us, everyone speaks Swedish -- but some clearly better than others, no?

Not a charitable analysis, I realize, and I do not wish to be misunderstood as attacking the motives of the creators of either "Hatten" or the Türkhits site. Whoever they are, I have no knowledge whatever of their intentions at any point in the creative process. Their audience, too, is probably overwhelmingly innocent in their enjoyment of the linguistic cleverness involved. I mean only to say that I find the implications of some of this 'translation' in its particular cultural context discomfiting and complicating.

But the form has promise. A clip called Daler och det hemliga vapnet a.k.a. Han teleporterar Taliban ("he is teleporting the Taliban") shows a degree of political engagement. (English gloss here.) As an apparent attempt to comment on Bush, Osama, Blair, and Afghanistan within the constraints of a relatively short and wholly predetermined set of non-Swedish sounds parsed as Swedish, this clip is an example of art in a closed frame for which I know no parallel. Surely it rivals dróttkvætt.

sunnudagur, nóvember 21, 2004


This coast is famously seasonless, but this night I saw three great flocks of birds migrating by moonlight, coldly lit as if from below, looking like ghosts between the constellations.

laugardagur, nóvember 20, 2004

ekta púrismi

I find real linguistic purism (afsakið, ég á auðvitað við málsótthreinsun) tiresome in the extreme. There are many reasons for this.

But the hardcore hreintunguherjar do get to have what must be a lot of fun coming up with clever coinages to replace loan words both old and new. The so-called Language Laundry linked to above has put together a list of aggressively Icelandified placenames for numerous locations not in Iceland, a must-visit for any etymologically-inclined geography buff. Many of the other words found on their other lists are also entertaining, though probably of limited use in downtown Ísafjörður either because the coinage (despite enormous cleverness, etymological rigor, and phonetic ease) is utterly unknown to all inhabitants of Ísafjörður or because the item glossed is nothing one would find oneself needing to speak of in downtown Ísafjörður.

But I am not one to be over-daunted by issues of practicality. Some of these neologisms are pure poetry and an enjoyable genre unto themselves. Personally, I'm happy to make up such things or enjoy the inventions of others without the purist agenda that would demand wiping out the pre-existing loanwords. In some cases, to do so would produce linguistic effects both weird and not necessary desirable.

By way of example: the crocodile.

The hreintunguherjar propose replacing the term krókódíll with words constructed of native timber, as it were, such as brynmerill (roughly "armored floating one") or bakkadreki ("riverbank-dragon"). These are great words. Brynmerill contains both the bryn- of Brynhildr and byrnies and (to my ear, at least) an intimation of glittering by analogy with the verb merla. Lovely word. And bakkadreki is fully servicable, descriptive, and þjálft. I think I've seen one or the other of these, fleetingly, in television subtitles.

However, it would be a shame to lose krókódíll. It's an old borrowing from Latin, into which it was borrowed from Greek. In fact the medieval Icelandic translation of the Lives of the Desert Fathers [Vitæ Patrum] includes an even more Greek version of the term: korkódríllus (though it is declined like a Latin word there, oddly enough). Which is all just to say that loanwords can be quite venerable and well-bred.

Furthermore, I think one loses something by eliminating the foreign-soundingness of the word krókódíll in Icelandic. Crocodiles are, after all, not very Icelandic creatures. This fact was driven home to all in 2001, when Mayor Reinhard Reynisson proposed importing some of them (or more properly some of their cousins, the alligators) to Húsavík as a tourist attraction. At the time, part of the pleasure of talking about the affair while it was tied up in the Ministry of Agriculture was exactly to do with the word krókódíll in an Icelandic sentence.

And why shouldn't we get to hear on the level of the sign the inherent strangeness of this plan? Why shouldn't a loanword appear in a sentence that was after all about importation? Krókódílar í Húsavík? How bizarre. How much more bizarre than brynmerlar í Húsavík would have been. Such a nativist word rather fails to contain the implications of having large, scaley, cold-blooded crocodilians lashing their tails through the pearly geothermal waters of northern Iceland.

Unfortunately for those of us who would also have liked to have been able to experience the pleasure of travelling to Húsavík to see the krókódílar in their new, northern home, the Minister of Agriculture, Guðni Ágústsson, denied Reinhard Reynisson an import license. Fortunately for those of us who enjoy occasional verse, Guðni was duly lampooned for his own biological purism:

Húsvíkingar sitja nú í sárum,
sviftir eru góðri tekjuvon.
Grætur köldum krókódílatárum,
kvikindið hann Guðni Ágústsson.

The folk of Húsavík are in arrears,
robbed of a good source of income.
He cries cold crocodile tears,
that bastard, Guðni Ágústsson.

The minister himself cited this anonymous verse in a speech on salmon importation. Translation is mine.

I find this verse eases some of the disappointment I feel in how the matter of the crocodiles has turned out. It is another excuse to talk about krókódílar in Icelandic - in verse, no less. But it also raises another question related to the topic of language purity:

If we replaced the krókódíll with something more nativist, like brynmerill, what would become of crocodile tears?

fimmtudagur, nóvember 18, 2004


This year the Leonid meteor shower is expected November 19, peaking at about 2149 GMT, which is not good viewing from where I am. Neither is it expected to approach the display seen three years ago, which was truly spectacular: Leonids in 2001

The photo above is from the 2001 storm, taken near Mount Shasta in California by John Flinn.

miðvikudagur, nóvember 17, 2004

þótt satt sé (again with the information)

News of the shakeup at the CIA has escaped upwards out of the blogosphere and into for example Salon, where Spencer Ackerman expresses some of the same concerns I had here two days ago. Sidney Blumenthal has continued on a related thread, one tied to the replacement of Colin Powell with Condi Rice, an event with its own implications for the use and abuse of intelligence in the years to come. Read Blumenthal for yourself; I note merely that it is always a bit chilling to see someone else use a phrase like night of the long knives only twelve hours after it has floated through one's own head and been rejected as potentially too inflammatory.

Today I find myself reflecting on this administration's apparent views on information flow and good versus bad intelligence in light of a passage from the Middle Saga of Bishop Guðmundr of Iceland. The passage in question directly addresses credibility and belief, understandably so, as the saga contains numerous miracles:

... því at þat vita allir menn at þat er allt satt er gott er sagt frá guði og hans helgum mönnum, ok er því gott góðu at trúa, en illt er at trúa illu, þótt satt sé, ok allra verst því, er illt er logit, ok verðr þat þó mörgum góðum mönnum at trúa því er logit er, ok verðr þá eigi rétt um skipt er menn tortryggja þat er gott er ok satt, en trúa því er illt er ok logit.

... for all people know that all good things said of God and His Saints are true, and for that reason it is good to believe good things, but it is bad to believe bad things, even if they are true, and worst of all is when bad things are lies, and yet it befalls many good people that they believe things that are lies, and it is not a good state of affairs when people doubt what is good and true but believe that which is bad and a lie.

Text cited from Miðsaga af Guðmundi byskupi in Biskupa sögur (1858), eds. Guðbrandur Vigfússon & Jón Sigurðsson, Copenhagen, vol. I, 592. Translation mine.

One cannot dispute the idea that giving credence to slander (bad things that are also lies) is undesirable. Belief in good and true things seems similarly beyond reproach. However the other two propositions could worry a modern mind.

The notion that "all good things said of God and His Saints are true" is probably not so bizarre as it appears at first glance. It may rely on a medieval notion of figurative or allegorical truth. That is, a story about, say, a saint performing a virtuous deed or even a miracle need not have been historically accurate in all details to contain this sort of truth, either about the holiness of the saint in question or the virtuousness of the deed in question. Since the saga of Bishop Guðmundr is heavily concerned with miracles, events which by their nature strain the credulity of the audience, this is a kind of truth value of great importance to the compiler or author.

(Though we are not medievals, we also have this notion of allegorical truth. The tale of George Washington and the cherry tree is not one we tend to take seriously as historical truth, but rather as expressive of a truth about George Washington's character as an honest man.)

More arresting is the remaining proposition, that "it is bad to believe bad things, even if they are true." Within the context of a religion in which salvation depended in part or in whole on faith (here I will sidestep countless theological complications and the whole matter of the Reformation), this idea might be necessary. But in the context of an earthly government and its take on promulgating and disseminating information, gathering and using intelligence, this proposition would be quite distressing.

Not that the compiler of the Middle Saga had this administration in mind when penning that line. He most certainly did not. But I, reading it, do. I am unavoidably conditioned by my own historical horizon, recent events that reveal an administration that condemns criticism even if it is justified and seems to be poised to cut itself off from any incoming information that might be categorized as illt, þó satt, that is: bad, yet true.

þriðjudagur, nóvember 16, 2004

Dagur íslenzkrar tungu

Til hamingju með daginn, Jónas. Happy birthday.

It's the Day of the Icelandic Language, coincident with the birthday of Iceland's most beloved poet, Jónas Hallgrímsson. Thanks to Dick Ringler, you may read about Jónas and see his poetry, in Icelandic with copious English notes and translations here. In honor of the day, I recommend a ramble though that excellent site.

mánudagur, nóvember 15, 2004

information purge

Knut Royce at reports that there is in the works a purge of the CIA. The goal is not, it would seem, an attempt to prevent future intelligence failures but instead to bring the agency into ideological line with the White House. Those officers who have leaked "damaging information to the media" or been "disloyal to President Bush" must go. This paragraph also leaps out:
"The agency is being purged on instructions from the White House," said a former senior CIA official who maintains close ties to both the agency and to the White House. "Goss [the new agency head] was given instructions ... to get rid of those soft leakers and liberal Democrats. The CIA is looked on by the White House as a hotbed of liberals and people who have been obstructing the president's agenda."
(This is getting much blogtime at present, for example see Meteor Blades. It will be interesting to see where and how this surfaces in other media, if at all. As of now, the Houston Chronicle has picked it up.)

I will grant as much as that leaking intelligence to the media in time of war is, shall we say, not always a good thing, even if the war in question is also not a good thing. Loose lips can indeed sink ships.

However, it is deeply troubling that this is framed in terms of party affiliation or loyalty or disloyalty to President Bush. The idea that this administration would purge the Central Intelligence Agency of officers based on those officers' supposed obstructiveness or non-obstructiveness with respect to the administration's agenda suggests that the real target of the purge is the very intelligence those officers bring in. The administration should be basing its agenda upon the intelligence the CIA gathers, not tailoring the CIA to only bring in that intelligence that makes the pre-determined agenda seem like the right one.

But in saying so, I identify myself as a member of the Reality-Based Community. So be it; I have hereby outed myself.

Perhaps this latest news item made you recall, as it did me, that arresting paragraph in Ron Suskind's article in the New York Times Magazine ("Without a Doubt," 17.x.04), commented on in its time on dKos:
The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

I remember thinking at the time I had this before me on slick newsprint that this matter of reality-basedness went to the heart, four years later, of the massive irregularity that was the 2000 elections. In that election the difference in the totals for the two major candidates was very small indeed, and there was real question as to whether the count had been precise and accurate enough to determine who had won the plurality or, yea, majority, of the votes. But in the crisis as it developed, many Democrats took the stance that a recount should be held, and the Republicans, memorably, did everything in their authority and in their power to block a recount. They succeeded.

In light of the paragraph from Suskind's article above, we can see the same issue. A result based on a recount would have been exactly a solution emerging from the judicious study of discernible reality, the reality in question being the ballots.

Now: there remains in theory a real question about what recourse a democracy has when the difference which should determine the winner of an election is within the statistical margin of error of the system. In such a case, it really would, mathematically and statistically speaking, be impossible to answer the question of who had in fact won the election. It is the case that the Democrats did not offer a solution to this potential problem.

But the Republicans did not offer a compelling and viable alternative to reexamining reality, the actual data, the ballots themselves, in order to reach a solution. They ignored any theoretical ramifications of the problem of the margin of error and instead conducted what many regard as having amounted to a power grab. But that much is history - they did come to power - and whatever your personal take on whether the High-Court-driven resolution to the matter of the 2000 election was in any way inappropriate, you may yet still find the larger point here a necessary one. Results falling within the margin of error is a special case, and it may or may not have been the case dealt with, whether well or badly, in 2000.

Aside from that special case, there is a larger issue raised by the dismissal of reality-based thinking.

This is the crux: Democracy is a reality-based system in the sense used by the aide quoted above. Polling to determine the will of the electorate is a solution emerging from the judicious study of discernible reality. An administration that does not buy into solutions emerging from the examination of reality in the form of ballots or any other representation of the will of the electorate is an administration fundamentally opposed to democracy.

That last point bears repeating:

An administration that does not accept solutions emerging from the examination of reality does not accept the legitimacy of democracy.

At the risk of burying that point, I'll return to the initial subject: intelligence. Counting votes is one way of examining reality, a kind of reality internal to the state. Gathering and analyzing intelligence abroad is a way of examining reality external to the state. The chill that Mr. Royce's article sends though the reader signals a fear that the administration may be choosing to blind itself to information that would have allowed it to make better policy decisions. (Better than what? Better than otherwise.) It is a fear that the giant, in its rage, will put out its own eye and in so doing become more dangerous to itself and to all.

Perhaps this is all a phantom, an unruly flock of anxieties born of Mr. Royce's particular choice of words or that of his source. Certainly a word like purge sends those who've read some Soviet history to prick up their ears and listen for a different sort of Georgian accent. Perhaps it is all a misunderstanding. But some of us had hoped that the President's regrettable use of the word crusade had been an unfortunately slip of the speechwriter and that it would be, in fact, regretted. To our great dismay, that word proved to have been all too apt, all too descriptive and intentional. This fact and the way this latest news item rings the same alarm bells rung by the Suskind article make one pause and worry.

sunnudagur, nóvember 14, 2004


On my evening rounds I encountered three cats of varying friendliness. The first was mackerel-striped and followed me a ways. The second was calico and not terribly interested in me. The last was gray, shy, and very pregnant. She waited for me to pass out of range before scampering up the steps I had just come down.

A dog also crossed my path, moving at great speed in pursuit of a hurled thing. To judge by the cries of the leash-holding woman standing nearby, this animal was named Moose.

föstudagur, nóvember 12, 2004


I am reading a fascinating book on the the idea of Lemuria and its use by Western occultists and Tamil nationalists.

I have learned that Lemuria, initially conceived of as having been a land bridge between Africa and the Indian subcontinent, was originally postulated in an attempt to explain the geographical distribution of lemurs.

Somehow, I had never put this bit of etymology together myself. The lost continent that accreted so many associations with Atlantis, Mu, sunken civilization, extraterrestrial wisdom, crystals, pyramids, Theosophy and whatall is in fact called land of lemurs.

I cannot help but think of how things could have fallen out slightly differently and the locus of lost mystic wisdom come by a different name:

Chipmunkia. Squirrelia. Chinchillia.

fimmtudagur, nóvember 11, 2004


Hige sceal þe heardra, heotre þe cenre,
mod sceal þe mare, þe ure mægen lytlað.

Maldon 312-13


A week or so spent digesting the election, and it's still awful.

It's awful that it's gone this way. It's awful that it did so on what may be actual votes (though the chatter on dKos suggests that some unfunny funny stuff may indeed have taken place). It's awful that 51% of the voting public was duped or thinks radically differently or whatever happened. The pundits are gnawing on just what it was that did happen.

I note however these two facts:

1. The 48%. The minority could have been smaller, and that would have been worse. 48% is close enough to being the half or in fact the majority that the 48% has to take seriously the need to stand fast and fight hard for the next four years. The temptation is to flee, but that would put the remaining good folk (the then 47% and dropping) in an increasingly bad spot.

Other people have made these points. Stand and fight, says Meteor Blades. Sit and refuse to be moved, says DHinMI, both Kossacks. Hold the line, they say at Not Geniuses, quoting the New Republic at length. An excellent post on Another Liberal Blog points out that the Bush victory was by an embarrassingly thin margin, historically thin, thinner than an incumbent has ever squeaked by on before. Meanwhile, turnout was enormous, with the result that though Bush can truthfully claim to have been elected by more voters than any other American president in history, he is also the only American president ever to have been voted against by so many as voted against him now. More Americans voted for Kerry than voted for Reagan. That's tremendous. And that's nothing the 48% should walk away from.

2. Iraq is a disaster and going to get much worse before it gets better. Take heart in the fact that none of the enormous amount of shit-splattering that is going to happen is going to hit Kerry or the Democrats. It will stick to Bush, to Cheney, to their machine, and to the Republicans in general. This means that a) when the country finally gets rid of the bastards, a Democratic president may be able to go credibly anew to the world and plead forgiveness for the deeds of the Republicans. That is, there is a possibility for keeping the idea alive in the mind of the world that this is the doing of some Americans, not all Americans. And b) perhaps some of the 51% will start noticing that this is a disaster, and cross the line over into what is now the 48%, swelling the ranks.

As Leofsunu exhorted his companions at Maldon by example:

Ic þæt gehate, þæt ic heonon nelle
fleon fotes trym, ac wille furðor gan ...

I swear this, that I will not from this place
a foot's tread flee, but go onward ...

And though I might cite Maldon here, this is not a hopeless fight.

Áfram, 48%, áfram ...

miðvikudagur, nóvember 10, 2004

island life

A cartographic comparison.

The now-ubiquitous election 2004 map by Michael Gastner, Cosma Shalizi, and Mark Newman at the University of Michigan:

The web now crawls with juxtapositions of this map (or one of the others by this Michigan gang found here) with others. The map of pre-Civil War slave and free states is particularly interesting, as it demonstrates that the "dividedness" talked of now goes back more than a century.

But for the long view, I personally prefer this item, Nicolas Sanson's "Amerique Septentrionale" (Paris (1650-)1651):

Yes, California is an island. Now and always.

mánudagur, nóvember 08, 2004


For et godt og nyttig ord det er: Ferðahugur. Det står her i ordboka: "ákafi og eftirvænting, umhugsun um væntanlegt ferðalag." Det ligger et særlig behaglig ubehag i det, å vite at man snart skal reise. Å ha billettene i hånd. Å ha alt klappet og klart. Mulighetene åpner seg og man er tatt av en mystisk bevene ro.

Det minner meg om det gode med å flytte. Dere må ikke misforstå meg: jeg misliker å flytte. Jeg rett og slett hater å pakke ned. Jeg oppliver det som om jeg drev med å ødelegge hele verden, gjøre alt om til rot og kaos. Men i det at alt er pakket ned og ligger tryggt og ferdig i taskene og kassene ... det er herlig. Herlig å vite at man kunne reise straks, dra hvor som helst, være nomadisk og fri.

Når jeg har billettene i hånden. Det er en lettelse.

rex americæ

On the subject of politics and small dogs (both of which I mentioned previously in rex latrans), today's Salon includes this quip by Dennis Jett:
To call the Republicans in Congress the lap dogs of the White House is to insult Chihuahuas everywhere -- they at least bark on occasion.


og enn fremur ...

I am informed by my spies out in the world of two interesting items pertaining to albeit and its relations.

First, the shorter OED takes albeit as a contraction "all though it be that," where '"it" holds a place in the grammar for the proposition to follow. That is, the OED agrees with Safire and Fowler in analyzing the word such that the "it" element need never change in number or, for that matter, gender.

However, not only is the inæsthetic form albethey in circulation, but the more pleasing and grammatically identical "all be they" is also current, albeit more difficult to Google efficiently.

Furthermore, these same spies have also gone a-hunting in Chaucer and come up with three verses from the Wife of Bath's Tale all ending on the same line; the first verse appears here:

The firste stok, fader of gentilesse -
What man that claymeth gentil for to be
Must folowe his trace, and alle his wittes dresse
Vertu to sewe, and vices for to fle.
For unto vertu longeth dignitee,
And nought the revers, savely dar I deme,
Al were he mytre, coroune, or dyademe.
That "al were he" must be the equivalent of "although he were." The pronoun "he" is personal and refers back to a masculine antecedent rather than forward to some (default neuter) proposition. Likewise the Knight's Tale (l. 1851) includes the phrase "al were they."

All this points to the grammatical understanding that produces "all be they" and its more misshapen relatives being quite venerable, though it be an understanding that hasn't made it into the shorter OED. So to those among you who need morphology to have an ancient pedigree I say, feel free to employ these quirky forms, all be they less frequently seen in print. Chaucer has your back.

og þó ...

Today Wm. Safire took up the wee word albeit in the New York Times Magazine column "On language."

Comparing albeit to synonyms though and although, he remarks that the old intensifying prefix al- has lost the strength it had had centuries ago, with the result that though and although differ only in register (although is slightly more formal, he says) and not in degree.

I beg to differ. In my speech, at least, although has always been a sharper contrastive than though. Though is a throwaway, an in-passing concessive nod to something a little to the side of what I'm actually talking about. The stronger version with the prefix is the one I use to signal the new direction my line of thought is about to take, as when, after ranting in one direction for a while, making a point, and pausing to let it sink in and sipping my coffee, I pipe back up with an introductory "Although ... "

But is this perhaps the Icelandic part of my head speaking? Certainly al- remains an intensifier in Icelandic, and alfagur is more fair than fagur alone, and so I am bound to hear although as if it were a stronger form of though or þó, cognate to the non-existent *alþó.

Or is the influence metrical rather than etymological? The phrase "Og þó ... " is used exactly as I use although as described above, as the introduction to a new and contrastive topic in the conversation.

Still, I don't think this is all due to Icelandic in my case, though I concede there may be an element of interference at work. (See how that works?)

Safire also unpacks albeit into the phrase "all though it be that." I raised an eyebrow at this, because I have always analyzed the word differently, as a contraction of the phrase "although it be."

[Here a brief pause in which it is noted that in either case the archaic English subjunctive be is right in line after the though just like it would be in Icelandic, whether modern or medieval: þó það sé, where is the present subjunctive of vera, to be. Neat.]

Anyway, the seemingly subtle distinction between "although it be that" and "although it be" matters because the "it" in the latter may refer back to some element in the preceding clause, whereas the "it" in Safire's version is freestanding and has no antecedent. English grammar being what it is, pronouns and their antecedents need only agree in number. What is my point? Well, I know myself to have come out with constructions like:

Those people are a lot of fun, albethey loud and opinionated.

I am not sure I have ever heard anyone else say albethey. I know I have never seen it in traditional print media or tried to write it myself, and seeing my attempt to spell it for the first time here I cannot deny a certain degree of embarrassment. It looks terrible. But I know that I say it, and upon reflection I know that it stems from an unconscious understanding of the "it" in albeit as a (singular) pronoun referring back to the (singular) topic of the preceding clause. If the topic is plural, well then the pronoun must be as well.

Furthermore, a quick Google search reveals that I am not alone in my use of the form albethey. It seems to be all over the net. Logic suggests that the form albewe should be possible, but I find only one use via Google, and the pronoun antecedent is a little unclear. *Albeyou and *albeya'll I find not at all.

The evidence from the web points to at least two analyses of the term albeit being current today, mine and Safire's, and his is really that of the 1965 revision of Fowler's Modern Usage. Apparently Chaucer (who used albeit) also used alwereitso, which looks to have been a past tense version of albeit [just as Icelandic þó það væri corresponds to þó það sé]. The "so" in that word suggests an underlying form more like Safire's / Fowler's expansion than like mine, and so perhaps today's less standard forms like albethey reflect a newer, unetymological analysis of albeit, but they are nonetheless amusing for all that.

laugardagur, nóvember 06, 2004


Mikið afskaplega er pirrandi að langa skyndilega í ekta pylsu (með öllu nema rem, takk) og geta ekkert gert í því.

rex latrans

Tom Tomorrow at This Modern World had a typically great strip not too long ago, one of a few in which he has touched on the idea of the emperor having no clothes. The spin Tom puts on this venerable idea is that the emperor is in fact a small, cute dog. Have a look at Salon (click through the daypass commercial if you are not a member).

Now, I mean no offense to dogs, but the fact is that they have, historically speaking, gotten a bad rap in literature. This is the example that springs to mind at present moment:

Saxo Grammaticus (floruit early 13th century) in his History of the Danes (Gesta Danorum), book VII wrote the following. I won't tire you with the context.

They say that Gunnar, the bravest of the Swedes, was once at feud with Norway for the most weighty reasons ... For Gunnar, in order to punish the cowardice of the conquered race by terms of extraordinary baseness, had a dog set over them as a governor. What can we suppose to have been his object in this action, unless it were to make a haughty nation feel that their arrogance was being more signally punished when they bowed their stubborn heads before a yapping hound? To let no insult be lacking, he appointed governors to look after public and private affairs in its name; and he appointed separate ranks of nobles to keep continual and steadfast watch over it. He also enacted that if any one of the courtiers thought it contemptible to do allegiance to their chief, and omitted offering most respectful homage to its various goings and comings as it ran hither and thither, he should be punished with loss of his limbs. Also Gunnar imposed on the nation a double tribute, one to be paid out of the autumn harvest, the other in the spring. Thus he burst the bubble conceit of the Norwegians, to make them feel clearly how their pride was gone, when they saw it forced to do homage to a dog.

From the translation here.

For the Latin wonks:

Dan 7.9.4 (p. 201,7 )

[1] Ut enim Gunnarus devictae gentis ignaviam inusitata condicionis deformitate multaret, rectoris loco canem iis praeponi curavit. [2] Quo facto quid aliud eum assequi voluisse putemus quam, ut plenus superbiae populus insolentiam suam manifestius puniri cognosceret, dum obnixos latranti vertices inclinaret? [3] Et ne quid contumeliae deesset, satrapas procuravit, qui sub eius titulo privata ac publica negotia tuerentur. [4] Cuius etiam iugi constantique custodiae distinctos procerum ordines applicabat. [5] Statuit insuper, ut, si quis aulicorum ducis sui despicabile duxisset obsequium variosque discurrentis incessus plenis venerationis obsequiis insequi supersedisset, membrorum clade supplicia lueret. [6] Sed et geminum genti vectigal imposuit, unum autumnalibus copiis, alterum vernali tempore persolvendum. [7] Ita, Norvagiensium tumore exploso, obtentum est, ut liquidius fastus sui detrimenta cognoscerent, quem caninis adactum obsequiis viderent.

Complete original text .

Rex. Quite.

til hvers?

Versions of this thought have been rattling around in my head for days, and then Thomas L. Friedman of the Times came out and said it:

But what troubled me yesterday was my feeling that this election was tipped because of an outpouring of support for George Bush by people who don't just favor different policies than I do - they favor a whole different kind of America. We don't just disagree on what America should be doing; we disagree on what America is. (NYT 5.ix.04)

I would even put a finer point on it. I would say that we are looking at a disagreement about what America is for. The United States began after all a social experiment born of the European Enlightenment. The huge support the newly elected executive enjoyed among evangelicals (to say nothing of the truly frightening presence of the Dominionists in the mix) suggests (vægast sagt) widespread confusion of what the state is for and what the church is for. Not only has the wall between Church and State been eroded, but the very notion that such a wall might be desirable or even imaginable is fallen on hard times.

föstudagur, nóvember 05, 2004


A midnight thought:

You clan of Conn, remember this:
strength from the eye of the storm

fimmtudagur, nóvember 04, 2004

unquiet birds

Here are some birds:



And some from Iceland:



And not forgetting:

rara avis

Hvaðan þið eruð